The Plague-Ground – Survival of the friendliest

Now is the weekend of our discontent. Cases are spiking, leaves are falling, the wind is up, the market’s down – and organizing coffee is like planning an assault on Everest. By Monday, our mornings will start darker and by Tuesday, America may grow darker still.

But take heart. In the midst of a pandemic, what we need is a more hopeful view of our lives and our future. It helps if that hope is based on facts. So here they are.

Last week, The Guardian published a series of maps that show life is slowly getting better. The key word here is “slowly”. Because “good news takes time, but bad news happens instantly.”

That fact comes from Morgan Housel, an investment banker whose blog is like finding Shakespeare in a balance sheet.

Let’s take just one part of our lives: heart disease. As Housel writes: “The age-adjusted death rate per capita from heart disease has declined more than 70% since the 1950s…Why are we not shouting in the streets about how incredible this is and building statues to cardiologists?”

“I’ll tell you why: because the improvement happened too slowly for anyone to notice…How would you react if you saw a news headline that says: “Heart disease deaths decline 1.5% last year. You’d yawn and move on. So that’s what we’ve done.”

But bad news?

“Bad news,” says Housel, “is not shy or subtle. It comes instantly, so fast that it overwhelms your attention and you can’t look away…It took less than 30 days for most people to go from never having heard of Covid-19 to it upending their life.”

His point is that growth and progress are far more powerful than setbacks. In fact, slow progress amid a drumbeat of bad news is the normal state of life. It’s just harder to see when we’re staring into the eye of a pandemic.

As with Morgan Housel, I’d never heard of Rutger Bregman until last week. He’s a Dutch historian whose last book Utopia for Realists was translated into 32 languages and whose new one, Humankind, A Hopeful History, claims that it isn’t our brains or our opposable thumbs that have put us at the top of the Darwinian heap, but our innate kindness and cooperation. The book, he says, is based on a simple but radical idea: “What if most people, deep down, are pretty decent?”

Lest you think that Bambi was his co-author, Bregman points out that in the past 20 years, scientists have moved from a cynical and negative view of humankind to a more positive and hopeful one. “In fact, we are hard-wired to be friendly and cooperate.”

This shift has huge implications for all 8 billion of us. Because “if you assume that most people deep down are just selfish, you’ll start designing your institutions around that idea: your schools, your workplace, your democracy.”

One look south and we’ll see how well that idea is working. But if we move to a more hopeful and realistic view of human nature, Bregman feels that can change everything.

Despite the evidence in favour of his idea, it remains deeply subversive.

But as he noted in a 2017 interview in Le Devoir, “…to move forward, a society needs dreams, not nightmares. Yet people are caught in the logic of fear…. Whether it is Trump, Brexit or the last elections in Germany, they vote against the future and instead for solutions to replace it, believing the past was better based on a thoroughly mistaken view of the world: the world was worse before.”

“Humanity is improving, conditions of life, work and health too. And it’s time to open the windows of our minds to see it.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

One problem with despair, and I speak as a veteran here, is that you fall into it. But hope takes more effort. Hope is hard, especially if your horizon darkens when the sun sets today. But look a little farther, and the power of compounding interest for hope will always conquer despair – because it always has. It just takes longer to see.

So if you’re a little undone by what lies ahead next week, take heart.

You have nothing to fear but hope itself.

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17 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Survival of the friendliest”

  1. Catherine Morrow

    Just what the doctor ordered. Thanks, Bob. I needed that!

    Next week will be what it will be, but here’s hoping it’s decency that trumps all.

  2. Madeline Thompson

    Wonderful post Bob! I truly believe we are all hard-wired towards
    hope: we all fall into despair, we rise out of it, work our way back
    into hope. Each time we do that we make hope stronger.
    Can’t live without it.

  3. Love in the time of covid.
    Was it FDR who said we have nothing to fear but fear itself?
    I concur when you say bad news is sudden (something I understood for the first time, when my father died (of lung cancer, we knew it was coming, fast: no one told me how SUDDEN death is), and how slow hope or repair is – think physio after a fall, sobriety (a one day at a time thing). That is now my mantra: one day at a time. Although darkness is crowding in as we enter November I am striving to walk toward the light.

  4. Great perspective Bob. Thanks for your thought-provoking factoids as always.

    Re the 1.5% heart disease improvement crawl vs Covid’s sprint — it’s perhaps trite to observe how much of life in general seems to be like that. Debilitating setbacks in all realms as we move four steps forward, one backward, most notably in the forward march of technology in the latter half of our blessedly lucky lifetimes.

    “Bad news travels fast. Good news takes the scenic route.”

    Same principle for many/most things eh?

  5. Nice to hear something hopeful. I forwarded it to my son, the cardiologist. If you want to reinforce that feeling, try Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2018 book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

  6. Hi Bob,
    Beautiful column. Thank you.
    I dislike November but you inspire me to put a new perspective on in.
    I’ve always believed that there are 3 things that are important in life. To be kind, to be kind, and to be kind.
    Good wishes only,
    Linda Stevens

    1. Linda — Thanks so much for re-connecting. Indeed, be kind says it all. The other thing I would say, especially today, is that there’s no such thing as bad weather; there’s only bad gear. I’m determined to get out for a long walk in the wind and rain, and trust you are too.

    2. Cliff — I’d heard of Stephen Pinker, but had no idea he’s a Canadian! Thanks for opening my eyes to that. Cheers. Bob

    3. And speaking of walks, Louise, today is the perfect day to force yourself outdoors to have one.
      If you can do it today, you can do it any day !


    4. I’ve been wrong about Trump so many times I feel like a PTST person. But I too share your great hope that the darkness will end soon in America.

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